When Chicago lawyer Sebastian Hinton was a boy his mathematician father devised a unique way to help his children better understand three-dimensional space. Years later in 1920, Sebastian recounted the tale at a dinner party in the home of the superintendent of schools in Winnetka, Illinois.
What the elder Mr. Hinton had done was build a three-dimensional grid of bamboo poles that his children could climb on, more funky sculpture than traditional toy. When a coordinate was called out (X,Y,Z), young Sebastian and his siblings raced to that location.
Sebastian Hinton explained he’d like to build a similar structure for his own children, though he admitted that it had meant more than developing math skills to him, that he’d really just enjoyed scrambling all over it like a monkey. The superintendent, who’d been looking for ways to incorporate more physical education into his curriculum, was impressed.
Not long after, Hinton applied for a couple of patents and set to work creating and installing the first official “Junglegym.” Despite his monkey math skills, Hinton’s first attempt proved too dangerous (even by 1920 standards), but by the second prototype, he had it. Today that second attempt remains on the playground of Crow Island School in Winnetka, where children still scramble all over it like monkeys.
Whether they are learning math in the process or not, children love to climb and swing and explore. And that’s why, when my boys (8 and 10) had the day off school last Friday, I took them to one of our favorite St. Louis destinations, the St. Louis City Museum.
I know the media currently portrays St. Louis as one of the most dangerous cities in the US and I know we’ve had some challenges over the last year or so, but that’s why I have to tell you about some of the great things you’ll be missing if you choose to avoid the city altogether.
Because my city is awesome. And The City Museum is absolutely amazing.
Built inside (and outside and on top of) the old International Shoe building downtown, the “museum” is a giant, evolving, work of art constructed almost entirely of reclaimed industrial and architectural materials. Everywhere you look you’ll find playful sculptures, beautiful mosaics, funky decorations, and more fun than you can imagine.
You’ll receive no map when you enter, and you’d likely not be able to follow one anyway. What you will find is a wildly imaginative series of structures on which people of all ages are encouraged to climb and explore.
There are enchanted caves, tunnels leading through and below a giant whale and a whimsical tree house. Slides of various sizes (including one that is ten-stories high) snake through the building and circus performers present several shows a day.
Outside the building is a pair of dodge ball pits, suspended aircraft fuselages and a fire engine to explore, a castle turret, lots more slides, and all kinds of connecting walkways and tunnels.
Opened in 1997, the City Museum has become a downtown destination in St. Louis, unlike any other in the world. It’s a place where children (and adults who WILL be sore the next day) can learn about art, creativity, and imagination, about the kinds of materials that make up a city, and yes, probably even a lot about math, if they want to do that sort of thing. It’s in that sense that The City Museum really is a museum.
But mostly it’s just a great place to climb like a monkey.